“There is one at 5:20 from Liverpool Street.”
“Excellent. You had best go with him, Watson. He may need help or advice. Clearly we have come to a crisis in this affair.”
But our client seemed by no means eager to start.
“It’s perfectly absurd, Mr. Holmes,” he said. “What can this man possibly know of what has occurred? It is waste of time and money.”
“He would not have telegraphed to you if he did not know something. Wire at once that you are coming.”
“I don’t think I shall go.”
Holmes assumed his sternest aspect.
“It would make the worst possible impression both on the police and upon myself, Mr. Amberley, if when so obvious a clue arose you should refuse to follow it up. We should feel that you were not really in earnest in this investigation.”
Our client seemed horrified at the suggestion.
“Why, of course I shall go if you look at it in that way,” said he. “On the face of it, it seems absurd to suppose that this parson knows anything, but if you think —”
“I do think,” said Holmes with emphasis, and so we were launched upon our journey. Holmes took me aside before we left the room and gave me one word of counsel, which showed that he considered the matter to be of importance. “Whatever you do, see that he really does go,” said he. “Should he break away or return, get to the nearest telephone exchange and send the single word ‘Bolted.’ I will arrange here that it shall reach me wherever I am.”
Little Purlington is not an easy place to reach, for it is on a branch line. My remembrance of the journey is not a pleasant one, for the weather was hot, the train slow, and my companion sullen and silent, hardly talking at all save to make an occasional sardonic remark as to the futility of our proceedings. When we at last reached the little station it was a two-mile drive before we came to the Vicarage, where a big, solemn, rather pompous clergyman received us in his study. Our telegram lay before him.
“Well, gentlemen,” he asked, “what can I do for you?”
“We came,” I explained, “in answer to your wire.”
“My wire! I sent no wire.”
“I mean the wire which you sent to Mr. Josiah Amberley about his wife and his money.”
“If this is a joke, sir, it is a very questionable one,” said the vicar angrily. “I have never heard of the gentleman you name, and I have not sent a wire to anyone.”
Our client and I looked at each other in amazement.
“Perhaps there is some mistake,” said I; “are there perhaps two vicarages? Here is the wire itself, signed Elman and dated from the Vicarage.”
“There is only one vicarage, sir, and only one vicar, and this wire is a scandalous forgery, the origin of which shall certainly be investigated by the police. Meanwhile, I can see no possible object in prolonging this interview.”
So Mr. Amberley and I found ourselves on the roadside in what seemed to me to be the most primitive village in England. We made for the telegraph office, but it was already closed. There was a telephone, however, at the little Railway Arms, and by it I got into touch with Holmes, who shared in our amazement at the result of our journey.
“Most singular!” said the distant voice. “Most remarkable! I much fear, my dear Watson, that there is no return train to-night. I have unwittingly condemned you to the horrors of a country inn. However, there is always Nature, Watson — Nature and Josiah Amberley — you can be in close commune with both.” I heard his dry chuckle as he turned away.
It was soon apparent to me that my companion’s reputation as a miser was not undeserved. He had grumbled at the expense of the journey, had insisted upon travelling third-class, and was now clamorous in his objections to the hotel bill. Next morning, when we did at last arrive in London, it was hard to say which of us was in the worse humour.
“You had best take Baker Street as we pass,” said I. “Mr. Holmes may have some fresh instructions.”
“If they are not worth more than the last ones they are not of much use,” said Amberley with a malevolent scowl. None the less, he kept me company. I had already warned Holmes by telegram of the hour of our arrival, but we found a message waiting that he was at Lewisham and would expect us there. That was a surprise, but an even greater one was to find that he was not alone in the sitting-room of our client. A stern-looking, impassive man sat beside him, a dark man with gray-tinted glasses and a large Masonic pin projecting from his tie.
“This is my friend Mr. Barker,” said Holmes. “He has been interesting himself also in your business, Mr. Josiah Amberley, though we have been working independently. But we both have the same question to ask you!”
Mr. Amberley sat down heavily. He sensed impending danger. I read it in his straining eyes and his twitching features.
“What is the question, Mr. Holmes?”
“Only this: What did you do with the bodies?”
The man sprang to his feet with a hoarse scream. He clawed into the air with his bony hands. His mouth was open, and for the instant he looked like some horrible bird of prey. In a flash we got a glimpse of the real Josiah Amberley, a misshapen demon with a soul as distorted as his body. As he fell back into his chair he clapped his hand to his lips as if to stifle a cough. Holmes sprang at his throat like a tiger and twisted his face towards the ground. A white pellet fell from between his gasping lips.
“No short cuts, Josiah Amberley. Things must be done decently and in order. What about it, Barker?”
“I have a cab at the door,” said our taciturn companion.
“It is only a few hundred yards to the station. We will go together. You can stay here, Watson. I shall be back within half an hour.”
The old colourman had the strength of a lion in that great trunk of his, but he was helpless in the hands of the two experienced man-handlers. Wriggling and twisting he was dragged to the waiting cab, and I was left to my solitary vigil in the ill-omened house. In less time than he had named, however, Holmes was back, in company with a smart young police inspector.
“I’ve left Barker to look after the formalities,” said Holmes. “You had not met Barker, Watson. He is my hated rival upon the Surrey shore. When you said a tall dark man it was not difficult for me to complete the picture. He has several good cases to his credit, has he not, Inspector?”
“He has certainly interfered several times,” the inspector answered with reserve.
“His methods are irregular, no doubt, like my own. The irregulars are useful sometimes, you know. You, for example, with your compulsory warning about whatever he said being used against him, could never have bluffed this rascal into what is virtually a confession.”
“Perhaps not. But we get there all the same, Mr. Holmes. Don’t imagine that we had not formed our own views of this case, and that we would not have laid our hands on our man. You will excuse us for feeling sore when you jump in with methods which we cannot use, and so rob us of the credit.”
“There shall be no such robbery, MacKinnon. I assure you that I efface myself from now onward, and as to Barker, he has done nothing save what I told him.”